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Not ready for college writing

Many high schools no longer teach students to write a research paper, history teacher Doris Burton told Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who believes college-bound students should have to write a 4,000-word paper (roughly 16 pages). In response, Kate Simpson, an English professor at Lord Fairfax Community College asked her first-year students, who’d just finished a three-week research writing project, to write about their preparation for writing long papers.

She said she discovered that 40 percent of her 115 students thought that their high schools had not prepared them for college-level writing. Only 23 percent thought they had those writing skills. Other responses were mixed.

Twenty-nine percent “felt that students should be taught to write lengthy papers in high school,” Simpson reported.

“Not once in my four years of high school was I required to turn in a paper of over 1,000 words,” one student wrote. Several others said their teachers didn’t assign long papers because they didn’t have time to grade them.

As a baby boomer, I wrote a number of research papers in high school, though I don’t think any ran more than 10 pages. We certainly learned to use the library, fill out index cards and cite sources.

Now, when nearly every student is expected to go to college, they spend more time writing personal essays in journals than they learning how to research and write a college-level paper.

San Jose’s Downtown College Prep, the school in my book, Our School, sent all of its first graduating class to college. When students visited Sonoma State the following year, Javier complained that he hadn’t been prepared to write a footnoted research paper. In the bus on the way back to school, the teachers redesigned the curriculum to ensure that in future every student would write a college-style research paper before graduation. “Javier was right,” the history teacher told me. “Students need to learn this before they go to college.”

Fighting against the tide, Will Fitzhugh’s Concord Review publishes high school students’ research papers.